Ancel Keys, 100; Diet Researcher Developed K-Rations for Troops
Ancel Keys, best known for putting the K in K-rations by assembling meals that could be carried into combat during World War II, and dubbed “Mr. Cholesterol” for demonstrating the relationship between a fatty diet and heart disease, has died. He was 100.
Keys died Saturday in Minneapolis of natural causes.
Decades ahead of diet gurus, the University of Minnesota physiologist determined through his meticulous studies of what people should do to “Eat Well and Stay Well,” the title of the 1959 book he wrote with his chemist wife, Margaret.
“There is no single person whose contribution to understanding the causation and potential for prevention of heart disease has matched Ancel’s,” said Dr. Darwin Labarthe, a cardiovascular epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the celebration of Keys’ centenary in January.
Keys’ simple K-ration meal was perhaps his best-known and his most quickly completed accomplishment. But it signaled his lifelong effort to determine what people should eat to function and survive in the stressful modern world.
Educated at UC Berkeley and Cambridge, Keys had developed considerable respect among physiologists when, in 1941, he was tapped by the War Department to assemble a nonperishable, ready-to-eat meal that would fit in a paratrooper’s pocket.
With very little research, Keys, who had founded the University of Minnesota Lab of Physiological Hygiene two years earlier, went to a Minneapolis grocery store and began rummaging through the shelves. He selected compact packets of hard biscuits, dry sausage, chocolate bars and hard candy.
He tested the 28-ounce, 3,200-calorie meal on six soldiers training nearby at Ft. Snelling, and determined that the rations provided necessary energy and relieved hunger. “The meals were palatable,” one solder said, according to a 1941 Times story, “better than nothing.”
The Army -- later adding chewing gum, toilet paper and four cigarettes to each packet -- began mass-producing the meals and, to Keys’ surprise, dubbed them K-rations, presumably in his honor.
Keys served as a special assistant to the secretary of War and later an executive in the Office of Lend-Lease Administration. Privy to information coming out of Europe, he became concerned about the effects on nutrition deprivation on the war-torn population.
With the War Department’s permission, in 1944, he conducted the six-month Minnesota Starvation Experiment with 36 volunteers who were conscientious objectors. Through scientifically administered semi-starvation diets, the men lost 25% of their body weight. Keys determined that the starvation shrank their hearts, reduced their endurance and to a lesser extent their strength, and even changed their personalities.
His study, later published under the title “Biology of Human Starvation,” helped guide the rehabilitation of undernourished Europe after the war.
“Starved people cannot be taught democracy,” the blunt-spoken Keys warned. “To talk about the will of the people when you aren’t feeding them is perfect hogwash.”
As statistics from war zones emerged, Keys observed that the death rate from coronary heart disease dropped as food supplies dwindled. At the same time, he was noticing in local obituary columns the large number of men’s deaths caused by heart attacks.
The inquiry that would define his career landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1961 and earned him the nickname “Mr. Cholesterol.”
In 1947, Keys tracked 286 Minneapolis-St. Paul businessmen between 45 and 54 and determined that those who suffered heart attacks had high serum cholesterol levels. Never one to mince words, he explained:
“The cholesterol gets deposited in the arteries until it looks as if someone has dumped Cream of Wheat in them. A heart attack occurs when the blood clots or a blockage forms in the congested arteries.”
The rise in heart attacks in the U.S., he found, closely paralleled the increase in fat the American diet.
“Americans have Sunday dinner every day,” he said, and make the stomach “the garbage-disposal unit for a long list of harmful foods.”
Expanding his research, Keys launched the Seven Countries Study, surveying 12,763 men 40 to 59 in the U.S., Finland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, Netherlands and Japan. Heart attack rates, he found, correlated with diet and exercise.
With the two studies, Keys showed not only that bloodstream cholesterol was the major factor in heart disease, but also that saturated fats, including butter, red meat and fried food, were the major causes of bloodstream cholesterol.
Finns, who spread butter on their cheese, he observed, had the highest heart-attack rate, while rates were much lower in the Mediterranean nations of Greece and Italy, with a diet of fruits and vegetables, bread, pasta, chicken and fish, olive oil and a little wine.
Keys began to advocate and popularize the Mediterranean diet.
Experimenting in their own kitchen, he and his wife devised recipes and menus, writing the best-selling cookbook and guide “Eat Well and Stay Well.” They followed that with “The Benevolent Bean” in 1967 and “How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way” in 1975.
The couple used their royalties to buy a home on the coast of southern Italy, where they could easily maintain their recommended diet.
Keys, 5 feet 7 and 155 pounds, practiced what he preached. Nevertheless, given his lack of confidence in anecdotal evidence, he was reluctant to attribute his own longevity to his diet.
“Very likely,” he told the news media at his 100th birthday last Jan. 26. “But no proof.”
Born in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the nephew of actor Lon Chaney, Keys grew up in Berkeley and demonstrated a proclivity for science early in life. He was given a chemistry set on his 8th birthday, which led to an uncharacteristic experimental failure: Trying to chloroform a fly, he keeled over.
At Berkeley, Keys earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science, a master’s in zoology and a doctorate in oceanography and biology.
He earned another doctorate, this time in physiology, at King’s College, Cambridge University in England, and did postdoctoral work in Copenhagen under Nobel-winning physiologist August Krogh.
In 1935, while teaching at Harvard, Keys organized and directed the International High Altitude Expedition in the Andes to study the effects of altitude on people living and working at 20,000 feet.
Keys joined the University of Minnesota in 1936 as a biochemist at its Mayo Foundation in Rochester, and a year later moved to the Minneapolis campus to teach physiology. He retired in 1972.
He is survived by his wife; a daughter, Carrie D’Andrea of Bloomington, Minn.; and a son, Dr. Henry Keys of Albany, N.Y. Another daughter, Martha McLain, was shot to death by robbers in Jamaica in 1991.